Flaws of academy award

Simon O'Hagan gives a guarded welcome to a new sporting blueprint; As the Prime Minister launches his campaign to raise the game, the grass roots are already benefiting from a bold vision
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The Independent Online
AMID the almost universal approval with which John Major's plans for a British Academy of Sport have quite rightly been greeted, little mention has been made of the fact that in two leading sports - football and tennis - academies, or comparable institutions, already exist, and a third, cricket, could well open one before the end of next year.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from such establishments it is that these things take time. Tennis's five-year-old junior initiative is only now beginning to show signs of bearing fruit, as we report below. The Football Association's School of Excellence has been here for 11 years, and in the eyes of its critics remains at best unproven as a means of nurturing young talent and preparing it for the rigours of the professional game.

The FA School of Excellence held its 10th graduation ceremony in May, when the total number of boys to have passed between its goal-posts reached 160. Of these, 60 have made their League debuts, most of them in the lower divisions, while a handful have risen to stand out among the more conventionally educated: for example, Andy Cole, Nick Barmby, Sol Campbell, John Ebbrell, Garry Flitcroft, Ian Walker, Mark Robins and Trevor Sinclair.

Of the school's 100 other graduates, many are still too young for anything of significance to be expected of them yet. Of those that are not, some have failed to make the grade. Professional clubs, meanwhile, argue that their own youth systems do the job better. On balance, however, enough has been achieved for the school to have justified its existence, and for the FA to wonder whether it might be expanded into the British Academy of Sport. A greenfield site in the Midlands has been rumoured as its home, a description which certainly fits Lilleshall, in Staffordshire, where the school of excellence is based.

"We would see ourselves as a model for a national academy," an FA spokesman said last week. "But assuming football was part of the new academy, there would certainly be ramifications for our school of excellence. Would money become available to us? We couldn't say whether we would continue on our established road or be absorbed into the new set-up."

Mr Major's plans do seem to have taken even senior sports people by surprise. Mickey Stewart, the former England cricket team manager who is now director of coaching and excellence for the National Cricket Association, is a member of the TCCB development committee considering setting up a national cricket academy. He said: "We have been looking at this for some time and then suddenly we hear about a national sports academy. You're bound to ask wonder what it's going to involve."

A national cricket academy could be in place by the end of 1996, Stewart said. More detailed proposals of what it would consist of are likely to be known within a few weeks. "I'd say we were just coming round Tattenham Corner," was how Stewart described progress.

Indeed, one of the difficulties the country has in striving for success is the sheer number of sports we try to be good at it. None of the countries which are better than England at football would beat England at rugby. It is with only slightly less confidence that one would argue that none of the countries which are better than England at cricket would beat England at football. In how many of the countries which can boast far better tennis players than Britain has does cricket offer rival claims on youngsters' time in the summer?

One Sunday last month perfectly illustrated the range if not the quality of domestic sporting ambition. For perhaps the first time ever on the same day, England took the field in the three leading team sports: the country's footballers against Brazil, its cricketers against the West Indies, its rugby players against Australia. Only the rugby union team won, with one of those great sporting moments - the Rob Andrew drop-kick - that, as the Prime Minister pointed out, seems to speak to the whole nation. But the point is that no other country realistically shares England's hope of success in so many of the world's leading team sports.

Which is not to say that we shouldn't explore every avenue in aiming to improve national performance. And the appeal of a British Academy of Sport lies in the focus it would give to a lot of diverse effort.

English - British - teams do seem to under-achieve. In the same tournament last month that England's footballers were playing Brazil, they only narrowly managed to beat Japan, a country which could not begin to match its opponents in terms of tradition or depth of professionalism. England has more professional cricketers than any other Test nation, yet this seems to be as much a part of the problem as the solution to the national side's disappointing form.

In rugby, recent history has been rather different. The England team have hardened and modernised their approach, even if they are still no match for New Zealand. But if the extent - not the style - of that revolution is what the British Academy of Sport achieves, then we shall have much to be grateful for.